Dr Olel’s life should inspire health workers to serve all
The late Odhiambo Olel lived at the intersection of medicine, human rights, and democratic activism. Two memorial services and his burial next week offer the nation a precious moment to reflect on his distinguished career and courage.
Despite repeated imprisonment in the 1970s and 1980s, Dr. Odhiambo Olel was a medical physician first, political activist second. Olel trained in medicine at Makerere University, Kampala and Lumumba University, Moscow. He returned home to become public health officer at the Kenyatta National Hospital in the 1960s. Rising to become Chief Medical Officer, distinguished himself by coordinating life-saving anti-cholera campaigns in Kisumu.
His historian wife Loyce Odhiambo was a constant companion and confidant for 56 years until she died five months ago. Ironically, given his imprisonment for his political beliefs, it is their mother, the children remember as being the most radical of their parents. Despite the disruption to their family life, their efforts as loving, loyal, and dedicated parents paid off. This week, he will be buried by four women and men who have pioneering legal, ICT, education, and architectural and design professional careers.
Dr Odhiambo Olel remained committed to his professional oath as a doctor during some of the darkest moments of Kenyan history. Between 1970s and 1990s, he consistently treated Kenyans who were denied healthcare to cope with emotional trauma and physical torture by State Officers. One of his most famous patients was founding father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. Mzee Odinga was brutally assaulted, detained without trial and tortured while leading organized protests against the one-party state and human rights violations.
Dr Olel himself was first arrested in 1972 for organizing a health-workers strike. In 1987, he was arrested, abducted, tortured and finally convicted for being a member of “Mwakenya”, an unlawful society contrary to the Societies Act. In a recent “Second Liberation” interview, he explains how the post-1982 coup repression sent legitimate and non-violent dissent underground. Blindfolded and without legal counsel, he was driven 370 kilometers from Kisumu to Nairobi’s then infamous “House of Terror” or Nyayo House.
Stripped naked, beaten and detained in water-logged basement cells, protests that he was driven by his Hippocratic oath and not an oath of violence were futile with his interrogators. Reflecting on this period, he noted that it was not the physical assault that was most terrifying. It was the loneliness, uncertainty and mental trauma that was.
No human rights NGOs could operate in Kenya at the time. Amnesty International has documented more than 100 students, teachers, journalists, doctors and lawyers and industrial workers who were prisoners of conscience over this period. Denied lawyers and doctors of their choice, many of these patriots betrayed or fabricated evidence against their comrades.
Olel ended up in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, where he would have served five years if legal legend and Senior Counsel John Khaminwa had not successfully appealed his sentence by half. Unlike Olel, most survivors have yet to receive adequate compensation, the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission report recommendations gather dust and there still is no national memorial for those who were on the frontline for the Second Liberation. Sadly, the conditions Olel describes are no different than the rising number of testimonies from victims of enforced disappearances today.
May they also take heart knowing that state violence and repression didn’t kill Shujaa Odhiambo Olel. He lived to see the end of the one-party state and the 2010 constitution enshrine the right to health within an expanded Bill of Rights. Dr Olel’s memory must now be an inspiration to another generation of health-workers to serve all regardless of their political beliefs, identity or class. Two memorial services take place in Kisumu and Nairobi on Wednesday 19 January 2022 before his burial on Friday 21 January in Kabondo Kasipul, Homa Bay County.
In his passing, we celebrate a medical professional who kept his horizon higher than his patients’ medical charts and his stethoscope listening to and protecting the pulse of democratic nation.
Asante #ShujaaDrOdhiamboOlel for serving this nation so well.
This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard, 15 January 2022.